Fourth Of July On The Jersey
“The poor, helpless prisoners retreated from the hatchways, as far as their crowded situation would permit, while their cowardly assailants followed as far as they dared, cutting and wounding every one within reach, and then ascended to the upper deck, exulting in the gratification of their revenge.” – Captain Dring
A few days before the fourth of July we had made such preparations as our circumstances would admit for an observance of the anniversary of American Independence. We had procured some supplies with which to make ourselves merry on the occasion, and intended to spend the day in such innocent pastimes as our situation would afford, not dreaming that our proceeding would give umbrage to our keepers, as it was far from our intention to trouble or insult them. We thought that, though prisoners, we had a right, on that day at least, to sing and be merry. As soon as we were permitted to go on deck in the morning thirteen little national flags were displayed in a row on the boom. We were soon ordered by the guards to take them away; and as we neglected to obey the command, they triumphantly demolished, and trampled them under foot. Unfortunately for us our guards at that time were Scotch, who, next to the Refugees, were the objects of our greatest hatred; but their destruction of our flags was merely viewed in silence, with the contempt which it merited.
“During the time we remained on deck several patriotic songs were sung, and choruses repeated; but not a word was intentionally spoken to give offence to our guards. They were, nevertheless, evidently dissatisfied with our proceedings, as will soon appear. Their moroseness was a prelude to what was to follow. We were, in a short time, forbidden to pass along the common gangway, and every attempt to do so was repelled by the bayonet. Although thus incommoded our mirth still continued. Songs were still sung, accompanied by occasional cheers. Things thus proceeded until about four o’clock; when the guards were ordered out, and we received orders to descend between decks, where we were immediately driven, at the point of the bayonet.
“After being thus sent below in the greatest confusion, at that early and unusual hour, and having heard the gratings closed and fastened above us, we supposed that the barbarous resentment of our guards was fully satisfied; but we were mistaken, for they had further vengeance in store, and merely waited for an opportunity to make us feel its weight.
“The prisoners continued their singing between decks, and were, of course, more noisy than usual, but forbore even under their existing temptations, to utter any insulting or aggravating expressions. At least, I heard nothing of the kind, unless our patriotic songs could be thus constructed. In the course of the evening we were ordered to desist from making any further noise. This order not being fully complied with, at about nine o’clock the gratings were removed, and the guards descended among us, with lanterns and drawn cutlasses in their hands. The poor, helpless prisoners retreated from the hatchways, as far as their crowded situation would permit, while their cowardly assailants followed as far as they dared, cutting and wounding every one within reach, and then ascended to the upper deck, exulting in the gratification of their revenge.
“Many of the prisoners were wounded, but from the total darkness, neither their number, nor their situation could be ascertained; and, if this had been possible, it was not in the power of their compatriots to afford them the least relief. During the whole of that tragic night, their groans and lamentations were dreadful in the extreme. Being in the Gun-room I was at some distance from the immediate scene of this bloody outrage, but the distance was by no means far enough to prevent my hearing their continual cries from the extremity of pain, their appeals for assistance, and their curses upon the heads of their brutal assailants.
“It had been the usual custom for each person to carry below, when he descended at sunset, a pint of water, to quench his thirst during the night. But, on this occasion, we had thus been driven to our dungeon three hours before the setting of the sun, and without our usual supply of water.
“Of this night I cannot describe the horror. The day had been sultry, and the heat was extreme throughout the ship. The unusual number of hours during which we had been crowded together between decks; the foul atmosphere and sickening heat; the additional excitement and restlessness caused by the unwonted wanton attack which had been made; above all, the want of water, not a drop of which could be obtained during the whole night, to cool our parched lips; the imprecations of those who were half distracted with their burning thirst; the shrieks and wails of the wounded; the struggles and groans of the dying; together formed a combination of horrors which no pen can describe.
“In the agonies of their sufferings the prisoners invited, and even challenged their inhuman guards to descend once more among them, but this they were prudent enough not to attempt.
“Their cries and supplications for water were terrible, and were of themselves sufficient to render sleep impossible. Oppressed with the heat, I found my way to the grating of the main hatchway, where on former nights I had frequently passed some time, for the benefit of the little current of air which circulated through the bars. I obtained a place on the larboard side of the hatchway, where I stood facing the East, and endeavored, as much as possible, to withdraw my attention from the terrible sounds below me, by watching, through the grating, the progress of the stars. I there spent hour after hour, in following with my eyes the motion of a particular star, as it rose and ascended until it passed over beyond my sight.
“How I longed for the day to dawn! At length the morning light began to appear, but still our torments were increasing every moment. As the usual hour for us to ascend to the upper deck approached, the Working-party were mustered near the hatchway, and we were all anxiously waiting for the opportunity to cool our weary frames, to breathe for awhile the pure air, and, above all, to procure water to quench our intolerable thirst. The time arrived, but still the gratings were not removed. Hour after hour passed on, and still we were not released. Our minds were at length seized with horror, suspicious that our tyrants had determined to make a finishing stroke of their cruelty, and rid themselves of us altogether.
“It was not until ten o’clock in the forenoon that the gratings were at last removed. We hurried on deck and thronged to the water cask, which was completely exhausted before our thirst was allayed. So great was the struggle around the cask that the guards were again turned out to disperse the crowd.
“In a few hours, however, we received a new supply of water, but it seemed impossible to allay our thirst, and the applications at the cask were incessant until sunset. Our rations were delivered to us, but of course long after the usual hour. During the whole day, however, no fire was kindled for cooking in the galley. All the food which we consumed that day we were obliged to swallow raw. Everything, indeed, had been entirely deranged by the events of the past night, and several days elapsed before order was restored. This was at last obtained by a change of the guard, who, to our great joy, were relieved by a party of Hessians. The average number who died during a period of 24 hours on board the Jersey was about six, [Footnote: This was in 1782. The mortality had been much greater in former years.] but on the morning of the fifth of July eight or ten corpses were found below. Many had been badly wounded, to whom, in the total darkness of the night, it was impossible for their companions to render any assistance; and even during the next day they received no attention, except that which was afforded by their fellow prisoners, who had nothing to administer to their companions, not even bandages for their wounds. I was not personally acquainted with any of those who died or were wounded on that night. No equal number had ever died in the same period of time since my confinement. This unusual mortality was of course caused by the increased sufferings of the night. Since that time I have often, while standing on the deck of a good ship under my command, and viewing the rising stars, thought upon the horrors of that night, when I stood watching their progress through the gratings of the Old Jersey, and when I now contrast my former wretchedness with my present situation, in the full enjoyment of liberty, health, and every earthly comfort, I cannot but muse upon the contrast, and bless the good and great Being from whom my comforts have been derived. I do not now regret my capture nor my sufferings, for the recollection of them has ever taught me how to enjoy my after life with a greater degree of contentment than I should, perhaps, have otherwise ever experienced.”